Indonesian forces have engaged suspected Papuan separatists in a gun battle, one day after a deadly attack near a U.S.-owned mining operation. One suspected rebel has been confirmed dead and one Indonesian soldier injured. Indonesian officials say security forces traded gunfire with an armed group early Sunday in the eastern most province of Papua some 3,600 kilometers from Jakarta.
Scores of soldiers and police have been deployed to hunt down the gunmen that ambushed a group of mostly school teachers Saturday near the U.S. run Grasberg mine. Two Americans and one Indonesian were killed and close to a dozen others wounded.
Their convoy came under gunfire as it approached Tembagapura, the nearest town to the mine site. Some of the wounded were evacuated to Australia for medical treatment. Among the injured is a six-year old girl.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack but authorities say they can not rule out members of the Free Papua Movement which has been fighting for independence for the past three decades.
The mine, the apparent target, is run by the Indonesian subsidiary of Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold, with headquarters in the U.S. city of New Orleans. The company has issued a statement deploring the attack but said its operations will not be affected. Freeport McMoran's "Grasberg" mine is one of the largest in the world. As one of the only large foreign investments in Papua, the company employs thousands of local people.
But it has also been criticized for having close links to the Indonesian government and military which provides security around the mine site. Critics say that in the past, Freeport McMoran has provided logistical assistance to troops during operations to crush the Papuan separatists, charges the company denies.
Indonesia's Papua Province is located on the western half of the island of Papua New Guinea. The Papuan people are ethnic Melanesians and much of their culture and religion more closely resembles that of South Pacific Island communities than the rest of Indonesia. Formerly known as Irian Jaya, Papua was formally integrated with Indonesia in 1969, after tribal leaders approved the move in a special ballot. The vote won approval from the United Nations. But independence supporters say that the ballot was rigged in Indonesia's favor. Guerrilla separatists have been engaged in a long-simmering conflict with Indonesian troops ever since. The Indonesian government has passed legislation to allow Papua Province more control over the revenue from their natural resources as a way to appease separatists. But independence leaders say they will continue to push for full independence.